Archive for January, 2014

An Expedition to Tafelberg: Moving Up The Mountain

Posted in Travelogue on January 31st, 2014 by Fabian Michelangeli – Be the first to comment

Fabian A. Michelangeli, Ph.D., is an Associate Curator of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses in part on the evolution, identification, and classification of neotropical plants. This is the second of four posts about an expedition last year to Suriname in northeastern South America.


The helicopter leaves Ruddi Kappel airstrip with a sling full of cargo for the summit camp

The helicopter leaves Rudi Kappel airstrip with a sling full of cargo for the summit camp

As I recounted in last week’s post, it took Basset Maguire, a famous New York Botanical Garden scientist of the mid-20th Century, more than six weeks to travel to the base of Tafelberg, a “table mountain” in central Suriname. It took our team of six scientists and five support staff just over an hour to fly from Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital. Yet we still faced the same problem that Maguire had of getting our equipment and team to the summit, nearly 3,400 feet above our base camp.

In our case, the cargo included all of our food and camp essentials for two weeks, plus all the equipment to collect, study, and document the many different groups of organisms targeted by the expedition: plants, aquatic insects, frogs, lizards, snakes, and fish. Altogether, we needed to move about 1,200 pounds and 11 people to the summit. Once again, we had a faster method that wasn’t available to Maguire: a helicopter.
read more »

NYBG Grad Students: Jenna Dorey

Posted in NYBG Grad Students on January 29th, 2014 by Matt Newman – Be the first to comment

Jenna DoreyWhether it’s a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle or the phylogenetic reconstruction of the Carex laxiflorae complex, Jenna Dorey has a knack for piecing things together. Her work as a first-year Ph.D. student here at the Garden takes her through long stretches spent poring over morphology and molecular data, yet each piece of information is, like a jumble of shaped cut-outs, only a series of tenons and mortises waiting to be made whole. And from the field to the lab, this student rarely backs down from a good challenge.

We spoke with Dorey in late fall about her work in the NYBG labs, and the botanical inspirations that push her to continue her studies in the plant world. Among them, she tells us the love of a good frolic in a verdant field sits high on the list (though stomping around on a spongy moor with a vasculum in tow has a charm all its own).
read more »

Renowned Conservationist Brian Huntley Launches 14th Annual Winter Lecture Series

Posted in Events on January 28th, 2014 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

Stevenson Swanson is The New York Botanical Garden’s Science Media Manager.


Brian Huntley

Brian J. Huntley

The 14th Annual Winter Lecture Series kicks off this Thursday, January 30, with Kirstenbosch—The Most Beautiful Garden in Africa, a much-anticipated talk by Brian J. Huntley. As one of the world’s leading conservation scientists, he will be speaking about that stunningly beautiful Cape Town botanical garden and the long history of botanical exploration in southern Africa, home of one of the world’s most diverse—and endangered—floras.

A couple of weeks ago, I called Professor Huntley—among his many other titles and endeavors, he’s an emeritus professor of botany at the University of Cape Town—at his home in South Africa to ask him about his upcoming visit to The New York Botanical Garden, the first stop on an American speaking tour.

“The core component of my lecture will deal with the unusually rich flora of South Africa and how it has been developed and displayed at Kirstenbosch,” said Professor Huntley, who promises his talk will be “profusely illustrated” with images of Kirstenbosch’s gorgeous gardens, as well as individual species and families of plants. “One purpose of the trip is to give people a sense of what they’d see if they came to South Africa.”
read more »

An Expedition to Tafelberg: The Lore and Allure of “Table Mountain”

Posted in Travelogue on January 24th, 2014 by Fabian Michelangeli – Be the first to comment

Fabian A. Michelangeli, Ph.D., is an Associate Curator of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses in part on the evolution, identification, and classification of neotropical plants. This is the first of four posts about an expedition last year to Suriname in northeastern South America.


Our first view of the Tafelberg, rising from the surrounding forest as we fly into Rudi Kappel airstrip

Our first view of the Tafelberg, rising from the surrounding forest as we fly into Rudi Kappel airstrip

As a field biologist, you see some places mentioned in old literature that have achieved classical status, places that you think you will never be able to visit. Until recently, Tafelberg—Dutch for “table mountain”—in central Suriname was one of those places for me.

Geologically, Tafelberg is part of the Roraima formation of northeastern South America, with a layer of sandstone that lies over a granitic base, similar to several mountains in southern Venezuela that are of a type usually called a tepui (from the word for “mountain” in the language of the indigenous Pemon people). Tepuis often have steep rock cliffs that rise from the surrounding forest or savannas, giving these mountains not only their characteristic table-top shape but also a sense that their summits are effectively isolated. This shape and sense of isolation were prominently featured in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World, contributing to the lore and mystery that surround these mountains.
read more »

An Unwanted Hug

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on January 22nd, 2014 by Scott Mori – 2 Comments

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is the Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research centers on plants of the New World tropics.


A strangler fig embracing its host tree with an unfriendly hug

A strangler fig embracing its host tree with an unfriendly hug

Normally, the term “tree hugger” brings to mind an environmental activist who takes action to protect trees from destruction by other humans. In contrast, the plant shown here is a tree hugger that may hasten the death of the tree it embraces. The plant “hugging” the tree is a fig, one of the nearly 700 species of the genus Ficus of the mulberry family (Moraeae).

Many species of Ficus are “keystone” species, meaning they play an especially large role in their ecosystems. Their fruits—figs—are eaten by a wide variety of animals, especially species of birds and bats. Bird figs are usually red (Fig. 2) because birds are attracted by red, and bat figs are usually green at maturity because bats often find their food by echolocation and aroma, not by color (Fig. 3).

Figs that embrace trees like this are called strangler figs, but this is a misnomer. They do not strangle the host plant. They do, however, harm their hosts by robbing them of light, water, and nutrients.
read more »

The River-Dwelling Cousins of Ocean-Loving Algae

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on January 17th, 2014 by Xian Wang – 2 Comments

Xian Wang is studying for her Ph.D. degree at Fordham University and The New York Botanical Garden‘s Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program.


Trepanier Creek, British Columbia, a fast speed creek and one of Xian's sampling sites

Trepanier Creek, British Columbia, a fast speed creek and one of my sampling sites

Algae, a large and diverse group of plants that live in water, are often overlooked, but they shouldn’t be. They play an important role in the food web and life on Earth: algae produce more oxygen than all the land plants combined. They can be found in freshwater, brackish, and marine environments, and they’re classified as red, green, or brown, which is the kind I am currently studying.
read more »

A Foray For Fungi—and For Citizen Scientists

Posted in Travelogue on January 15th, 2014 by Shannon Asencio – 1 Comment

Shannon Asencio, who works at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, is the Project Coordinator for the Macrofungi Collection Consortium. This Garden-led project, involving institutions across the country, will result in a publicly accessible database and digitized images of several hundred thousand specimens of mushrooms and related fungi.


The beautiful gills of Megacollybia marginata, an unusual find for the Ozarks region.

The beautiful gills of a specimen collected during the NAMA Foray in the Ozarks.

A couple of months ago, I attended the 2013 “foray” of the North American Mycological Association (NAMA), held at Shepherd of the Ozarks in northern Arkansas. I was there not only to participate in the search for mushrooms—mycology is the study of mushrooms and other fungi—but also to deliver a presentation on The New York Botanical Garden’s exciting new crowdsourcing initiative.

These annual forays are a way to record the mycological species that occur throughout North America. The collection data, photographs, and dried specimens are housed at the herbarium of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. These specimen records provide data about the distribution of macrofungi—mushrooms and other large fungi species—in North America and serve as a resource for additional studies, such as DNA research.
read more »

NYBG Science Grads: Gwynne Lim

Posted in NYBG Grad Students on January 13th, 2014 by Matt Newman – Be the first to comment

Gwynne LimFor as much time as our scientists spend surrounded by centrifuges, microscopes, and the minutiae of scientific investigation, botanical inspiration can just as easily begin with something as simple as admiring a plant’s stunning good looks—a fact NYBG grad student Gwynne Lim will happily confirm. Her muse came in the form of the Tacca genus, more specifically the bat flower, a “gothic and macabre” plant which captured her imagination and led her down the path of exploration.

As a specialist in the systematics and reproductive biology of Tacca, Lim’s knowledge extends well into the current research being done to determine the genus’ medicinal uses, as well as its potential viability as a famine crop. But she certainly hasn’t lost that sense of wonder and discovery; of seeing the bat flower for the first time in the wild, or roughing it through miles of challenging terrain for the singular reward of witnessing something no other botanist has seen before. Watch the video below for an interview with Lim—it should help you understand how, so very often, discovery begins with a living muse.
read more »

Brazil Nuts: From the Flower to Your Party Mix

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on January 10th, 2014 by Scott Mori – Be the first to comment

Rogério Gribel, Ph.D., is the Director of Scientific Research at the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden in Brazil, and Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is the Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. They have studied all aspects of Brazil nut classification, ecology, evolution, and conservation for most of their careers.


Rogerio

Left: Rogério Gribel standing next to a gigantic Brazil nut tree. Right: a carpenter bee entering a Brazil nut tree flower in search of its nectar reward.

Here’s a video that shows how essential big, strong bees are for the production of the largest “nut” found in a can of mixed party nuts. It shows a carpenter bee (Xylocopa frontalis) pollinating the flowers of a Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa).

We say “nut” because Brazil nuts are seeds, not nuts, a kind of fruit structurally similar to an acorn. The Brazil nuts we eat at parties are produced in a woody fruit that looks like a cannonball, so, to be botanically correct, Brazil nuts should be called Brazil seeds. But we don’t expect that to happen anytime soon!
read more »

Liverworts, Cousins of Mosses

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on January 8th, 2014 by Barbara Thiers – Be the first to comment

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and Vice President for Science Administration at The New York Botanical Garden.


Illustration from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature), a book of illustrations of various organisms published in two volumes in 1904.

Alma Whittaker, the heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel The Signature of All Things, has a passion for science, especially botany, and most especially mosses. I share these passions although I have always been more captivated by liverworts, the cousins of mosses.

Mosses and liverworts were among the first groups of plants that evolved to live on land rather than in water. Because they lack the internal mechanisms for conducting water that most land plants have, they remain small so their leaves can absorb water directly from the surfaces on which they grow. Mosses and liverworts both reproduce by single-celled spores rather than seeds.

While most mosses are fairly uniform in structure, consisting of a stem with simple leaves spiraling around it, liverworts are unfettered by structural conformity. As shown in the illustration, their forms range from ribbon-like to leafy, and the leaves can be folded and divided in many ways. They release their spores by means of stalked structures that look like umbrellas or tiny brown flowers.
read more »